May 28, 2001 – Want a fun, inexpensive, clean place to visit which is very European with a mixture of architectural styles, interesting food, extensive transportation system, and a high probability of finding polite English-speaking residents? Look no further; Budapest is for you.
We discovered Budapest last year. This year, we went back for more.
What is your favorite architecture — Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Eclectic, Modern? You name it, you can find it in Budapest — sometimes all in the same block. The Baroque castle and churches in Buda, the Classical National Museum and Obuda Synagogue, the Romantic Pest Synagogue and Nyugati Railway Station (complete with a Romantic McDonald's behind hundreds of panes of glass) are great examples of the genre.
Into Eclectic? Experience the new Town Hall and parish churches in Ferencvaros and Erzsebetvaros. For Art Nouveau, there is the Gellert Hotel and Baths. Folkloristic-Modern enthusiasts have the Nerve Surgery Institute, while the Neo-Neo-Baroques have the Corvin Cinema and Corvin Department Store. For Bauhaus devotees, there's the row of apartments lining the Eighth District. Fans of the '50s will love the College of Applied Arts; and those of the '70s, the Scala Budapest Department Store.
These are but a few of the hallmark buildings in this often-destroyed, often-rebuilt city. The views of Buda and Pest from the elbow of the Margaret Bridge are said to be finest cityscape on the Danube, with the Parliament building on the left hand curve, Buda's Castle District on the right and Gellert Hill and the Citadel in the background.
For me and my wife, the best building of all was the "house of chocolate" at the head of Vorosmarty ter (plaza) and the tourist shopping street Vaca ut (street). You are right! We’re not so much into architecture as we are into chocolate. The chocolate maven Gerbeaud began his business here in 1870.
The Frank Joseph Underground Railway was started in 1894 and opened in 1896. It was the second subway in Europe (after the London tube), and the Vorosmarty exit from the east end of the rail line is directly in front of the chocolate master's café.
The Gerbeaud pastries are exquisite works of art crafted in whipped cream and chocolate. Prices are a bit more here than elsewhere, and the service is slow, but who cares? You are seated in a European center of indulgence, eating and drinking the finest products of the master known for the Konyakos Meggy (dark chocolate coating of sour cherries matured in cognac).
Two years ago, a new pub featuring its own micro-brewed ales opened for business in the basement of the Gerbeaud building. The service is excellent, the brews superb and the food top of the line. So far, though, the clientele is sparse; it's just not a place for maximum visibility like the sidewalk café, and it's too new – two years can't compare to 130-plus.
One of our favorite etterims (restaurants)is Kispipa in the Jewish District. We sought it out our first night and got lost. Stopping at a beauty salon, we asked directions. The proprietor consulted his watch and his schedule, hung out the "gone for a bit" sign, and ushered us down the street to the restaurant.
Our total bill for soup, main course, dessert and wine was $13.52. Generally we ate breakfast and lunch at our hotel as part of our hotel package, then had dinner out before attending almost nightly musical events. Our dinner prices ranged from $8.50 to $17.
Our favorite neighborhood restaurant from last year was Szep Ilona in northern Buda. The first time we looked for it this time, we had instructions to "take the 158 Bus above Moszkva ter to 1-3 Budakeszi ut." We found the bus easily enough, but the driver didn't speak English. When I asked if he went to Budakeszi ut, he nodded happily. I then realized this was not a good question, as his route could take us miles down Budakeszi ut but not to where we wanted to go.
Next I wrote the name of the restaurant on a piece of paper and showed it to him. Again, he nodded happily and motioned for me to sit down. After a mile or so, he caught my attention and motioned for me to come to the door. With a flourish, he stopped the bus and opened the door — directly in front of the restaurant.
The Szep Ilona's goulash soup is among the best, the pork knuckle and red cabbage are to die for, and the sour cherries are an excellent complement to the full-bodied red wine. Our total bill this year was $14.
Speaking of wine, we spent a great afternoon in the Budapest Wine Guild in Buda sampling Hungarian wines. While there, we met a Hungarian-American wine merchant from Delaware who was attempting to purchase commercial quantities of wine. He said the reason Hungarian wines are not better known in the United States is that they are so good they are fully subscribed in Europe, leaving nothing available for export to the U.S.A.
My wife and I have now spent six weeks seriously sampling Hungarian wines, and in our view they range from very good to superb.
We spent another pleasant evening wine tasting in the catacombs of an ancient monastery located beneath the Hilton Hotel in the Castle District. After wending our way in/out/down the stairs, we found this first-class cellar filled with rare wines available by the glass. We then spent more than an hour alone with the wine steward and his bottles, sampling some outstanding vintages to the accompaniment of classical music in the background.
One of the more off-beat etterims is the Nineteenth Hole. Walking south from the Parliament building on Nador ut along a nondescript building, one comes upon the entrance to the Golf Centrum and the 19th Hole. The Golf Centrum is a pro shop with clubs, clothes and all that rigmarole. It is has a virtual golf course, where you smack a ball into a screen showing a computer-generated video golf course. For the less adventurous, there are several driving nets to practice tee shots.
Friends in our hotel stumbled across this spot one afternoon and one of them had the good fortune to try the Hungarian onion soup. The creamy soup is served with grated cheese in a hard, round loaf of pumpernickel bread. Add a glass of full-bodied red wine, and you have a supper to suit almost any palate.
One morning we decided to lunch at Gundel's, take in the tapestry exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in the afternoon, then do our hotel's "folk night" buffet complete with gypsy music.
Eating at Gundel's cannot be a simple meal. Our experience last year — at dinner — lasted about four hours, involved four close companions whose friendship developed the first half-hour, and expanded to include five additional diners before the evening was over. Throw in half a dozen waiters, wine steward, maitre d', coat-room attendant (I needed a proper jacket, which she arranged), and an orchestra of seven or eight musicians, and you get more of a production number than a meal.
Lunch was different, but only a smaller-scale production. Instead of a bottle of Hungarian fine wine, we settled for a glass each. Instead of five courses, we made do with three. Instead of $125 dollars, it came to $55. Instead of four hours, we were able to trim it to three, allowing for an hour in the museum before we headed back to the hotel for a nap, a swim in the thermal pool, and a light dinner after nine. It doesn’t get much better.
Next: So much to see and do, so easy to get around, and so hard to keep your pockets from being picked.


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